Monday Morning Digest: Panthers, Cardinals, Jets in Trouble While Falcons Fly
Let's be blunt: This was not the greatest Sunday of football in NFL history.
It's no fun seeing Cam Newton and Carson Palmer get knocked out of games. Only a diehard Bills fan or a Ryan twin wants to see a third-string quarterback with a hand injury stumble around for the Patriots while Tom Brady twiddles his thumbs and waits to get out of Roger Goodell's thinking chair.
Colts-Jaguars was exciting if you love the idea of waking up Sunday morning to Conference USA-caliber football. The Cowboys and Redskins won, but it's hard to get jazzed about close-call victories over the 49ers and Browns, respectively. When Raiders-Ravens turns out to be one of the most exciting games on Sunday, you know it wasn't the best week.
But don't be discouraged! Monday Morning Digest is here to give you the rundown on all of those stories, plus these:
- Ryan Fitzpatrick faced one of the NFL's toughest defenses and cut his interception total in half.
- The Broncos proved after 90 years of NFL history that quarterbacks are irrelevant.
- The Falcons gained over 1,000 yards of offense and scored 93 points in six days.
- Josh Norman received a fine for welcoming everyone to Sherwood Forest.
- Someone left the Chiefs out in the rain, and the Steelers melted all over them.
And much, much more!
The Front Page: Panthers, Cardinals Losses Upset the NFC Balance of Power
There was no reason to panic when the Panthers lost to the Broncos in the season opener. The Broncos are the defending world champions, after all, and it was a close game.
There was no reason to panic when the Cardinals lost to the Patriots in Week 1. The Patriots are the Patriots, even with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski out, and it was a close game.
The Cardinals lost to the Bills in Week 3, but it was a road game against a team that just shook up its coaching staff. No reason to panic there. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost to the Vikings, but the Minnesota defense is tough, and the game turned on a few unpredictable plays like safeties and punt-return touchdowns.
In Week 4, the Panthers gave up 48 points to the Falcons, surrendering 300 receiving yards to Julio Jones alone. The Cardinals committed five turnovers in a 17-13 loss to the Rams. Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Carson Palmer were both knocked out of the games.
If you are a Panthers or Cardinals fan, hide in the closet with your arms around your knees and try not to hyperventilate.
The Newton and Palmer injuries aren't the only reasons to panic. They aren't even the primary reasons to panic, though both were evaluated for concussions.
Panthers fans should panic because:
- Their secondary is dreadful. Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards. Jones and other receivers weren't just open all game—they were usually open by several yards. The Panthers should not have let Josh Norman go and had no business believing a second-round cornerback would prove an adequate replacement.
- Their offensive line is falling apart. Mike Remmers was dreadful in relief of Michael Oher at left tackle. Daryl Williams wasn't effective in relief of Remmers at right tackle.
- Cam is losing confidence. He has been bouncy in the pocket, spraying throws and making weird decisions, such as the one that knocked him out of the game (slowing up to trot into the end zone on a two-point conversion despite the presence of converging defenders). He looks like 2014 Newton, the guy who spent half the season just trying to stay alive, not the MVP Newton of 2015.
Cardinals fans should panic because:
- Their division remains brutal. The Seahawks have figured out how to score. The Rams are starting to figure it out too. A team good enough to go 10-6 in a typical division (or 12-4 in the AFC South) can end up 8-8 with the Cardinals' schedule.
- Everything is sloppy. Turnovers aren't the Cardinals' only problem. Their special teams, which had critical gaffes in the Patriots and Bills games, made another big mistake Sunday, allowing a long Tavon Austin punt return. Watch a Rams or Bills highlight and you're certain to see a defender overrunning a play or abandoning an assignment to gamble for a big play. These mistakes should have been corrected after the Bills loss.
- Palmer is slumping. He's waiting in the pocket a second too long and forcing passes into unlikely windows. It's not a 2015 Peyton Manning meltdown or anything, but the rest of the Cardinals are not the rest of the 2015 Broncos.
With the Panthers and Cardinals trending downward hard, the balance of power in the NFC has shifted. The Falcons, who are averaging 38 points per game, could be legitimate contenders (though they fooled us into thinking the same thing until mid-October last year). The Rams may have finally emerged from 7-9 purgatory, but again, the Rams have fooled us with divisional upsets many times before.
The Seahawks and Packers can breathe a little easier. The NFC East contenders can dream of being more than NFC East contenders. The Vikings? Any day when the injury news is about another team is a good day in Minnesota.
This week's Digestible Nuggets (i.e. hot takes without that queasy feeling) focus on some important players who will be out of action for a while and the teams coping with life without them.
Without J.J. Watt, the Texans pass rush looked like the 2013-15 Falcons pass rush. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was only hit four times for one sack, and he had plenty of time to throw. The Titans also rushed for 124 yards.
A team with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus in the starting lineup should not have to toil until late in the third quarter to finally generate a sack against an opponent like Tennessee. The Texans held on for a 27-20 win, and their 3-1 record puts them a notch above the squirming cesspit of the AFC South.
But without Watt, that's all they are.
Without Dez Bryant, the Cowboys offense looked looser and more dynamic than it did when Bryant was healthy. That's probably an optical illusion caused by the 49ers, who are so hapless on offense that opponents get to fluff their stats with 10-20 extra plays per game. (The Niners only possessed the ball for nine minutes and 46 seconds in the second half.)
Dak Prescott (245 yards, two touchdowns) still rarely completes any deep passes; the only Cowboys passing play over 20 yards was a 47-yard Cole Beasley screen-and-go late in the game. But Prescott spread opportunities to Beasley, Terrance Williams and Brice Butler (12 catches, 151 yards and two TDs collectively), while Ezekiel Elliott (23-138-1) did what he wanted against a typically gassed Chip Kelly defense.
Things won't be so easy for Dallas against the Bengals and Packers over the next two weeks.
Without Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods caught seven passes for 89 yards, and Tyrod Taylor threw for 246 yards in a 16-0 Bills shutout of the Patriots. The Bills also got mileage out of LeSean McCoy (108 total yards, one touchdown) direct-snap plays, options and other offensive slights-of-hand to secure their second straight victory over a tough opponent.
No one outside of Buffalo is fooled by any of this, though a Rams-49ers-Dolphins run could put the Bills at 5-2 or 4-3. That's before Tom Brady exacts a horrible vengeance in Week 8 and the Seahawks make a casserole out of the remains in Week 9.
The Bears' minor league affiliate beat the Lions 17-14. The biggest contributions came from Brian Hoyer, Eddie Royal, Zach Miller and rookies Jordan Howard and Deiondre' Hall—a mix of replacement-level veterans and mid-tier prospects, just like you'd see on a Triple-A baseball roster.
It was a gut-check effort for a winless team at home against a mediocre opponent that resulted in a narrow victory. The Bears haven't turned any corners, and if this victory fuels a "Hoyer over Jay Cutler" campaign in Chicago, it may do as much harm as good.
Player Spotlight: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback, Jets
What He Did: Fitzpatrick followed up his six-interception meltdown last week with three more interceptions in a 27-17 loss to the Seahawks.
Fitzpatrick's performance was not nearly as bad as the stat line (23-of-41, 261 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) would suggest. Fitzpatrick delivered some pinpoint passes to Brandon Marshall (4-89-1) early in the game, including a back-shoulder throw for a 17-yard touchdown before halftime.
Fitzpatrick kept plays alive with some duck-and-weave scrambles, netting a first down with a roughing-the-passer penalty after eluding several would-be sackers at one point. He checked down against a tough defense to keep drives alive.
But as the game slipped away from the Jets, Fitzpatrick's limitations once again became apparent. One of his interceptions was tipped in the air by receiver Robby Anderson, and another came in the waning seconds of a game that was already lost. But the first came when he threw to Marshall against Richard Sherman one too many times, telegraphing a pass that Sherman knew was coming before Marshall did.
What It Means: The Jets are not that good. Their secondary got scorched for 309 yards from Russell Wilson, who looked like Tom Brady 2007 for most of the afternoon. The Jets have little skill-position depth beyond Marshall and injured Eric Decker, which is why undrafted Anderson got targeted six times and generated 12 yards.
Fitzpatrick has always been a risktaker at quarterback, the kind who can thrill you when things go well but look really, really awful when asked to do too much himself. Last season, the Jets defense played well, Marshall and Decker caught everything that came near them and we saw Peak Fitzpatrick.
This is Trough Fitzpatrick. With Decker hurt, we haven't seen the last of him.
What's Next: Probably a Fitzpatrick vs. Geno Smith quarterback controversy before the Steelers game. No one thinks Smith is the answer, but he's reliable back-page tabloid copy.
Game Spotlight: Raiders 28, Ravens 27
What Happened: The Raiders took a 14-3 lead before succumbing to the siren-like mind control of ugly Ravens football. After a blurry stretch of 15 combined punts and 22 combined penalties, the Ravens somehow held a 27-21 lead with 3:36 to play.
The Raiders answered with a 66-yard drive and Michael Crabtree's third touchdown reception of the day with 2:12 to play. Usually, taking a one-point lead in Baltimore around the two-minute warning is a recipe for losing a game on a 54-yard Justin Tucker field goal as time expires. But the Ravens could only drive to midfield before Joe Flacco's fourth-down pass to Kamar Aiken fell incomplete.
What It Means: The Raiders are 3-1 with three road wins east of the Mississippi River. Two of them came against opponents with tough home-field reputations (Saints and Ravens).
The Raiders still have not put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. They generated just 261 yards of offense Sunday, with the heroics of Crabtree obscuring the fact that no one else produced over 50 yards from scrimmage. Ravens running back Terrance West went 21-113-1 against an Oakland run defense that wore down as the game went on.
But this is how teams that have been bad for a long time finally turn the corner. They start winning games they used to lose on the road. They come back after losing leads. They make the most of smaller contributions, such as Marquette King's punting (46.5 net yards per punt Sunday, with four punts inside the 20). There is still work to be done, but the Raiders are finally starting to convert their potential into results.
What's Next: The Raiders have a string of winnable games (their toughest foe will be the Chiefs in Oakland) before they face the Broncos in Week 9. They could be 6-2 by then. The Ravens are scheduled to play a series of close, sloppy games that will probably be decided by 50-plus-yard field goals.
Player Spotlight: Will Fuller, Wide Receiver, Texans
What He Did: Fuller caught seven passes for 81 yards and one touchdown, adding a 67-yard punt-return TD in the Texans' 27-20 victory over the Titans.
What It Means: Fuller, the 21st pick in this year's draft, left Notre Dame with a reputation as a one-dimensional speedster with unpredictable hands. He is actually one of the fastest, most dynamic receivers in the NFL...with unpredictable hands.
Fuller has 19 catches for 323 yards (17.0 yards per reception) and two receiving touchdowns, but just about every catch was bobbled or double-clutched in some way. He also has a pair of drops, according to Pro Football Focus, one of which should have been an easy deep touchdown.
Shaky hands aside, Fuller has the kind of burst DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace possessed in their signature seasons. He's much slipperier in the open field and wigglier when running routes than the predraft buzz made him out to be.
DeAndre Hopkins is still the focal point of the Texans passing game, but Fuller is becoming the guy who sets the depth of the safeties. More than running back Lamar Miller or even Brock Osweiler, Fuller has been the guy who makes the Texans offense look and feel different—and just a little bit better—this year.
What Happens Next: The Vikings defense presents a new challenge and perhaps a new opportunity to impress.
Game Spotlight: Steelers 43, Chiefs 14
What Happened: It rained hammers and nails in Pittsburgh most of the night. The Chiefs arrived with their hyper-technical contraption of an offense—all misdirection runs and intricate blocking schemes. The Steelers showed up ticked off about what the Eagles did to them in Week 3. It was like a rumble in the rain between the Audio Visual Club and the Sons of Anarchy.
The Steelers came out attacking deep on offense. The Chiefs haven't attacked deep on offense since Trent Green left the team.
The Steelers hit hard and forced turnovers on defense. The Chiefs ran backward on kickoff returns and turned field-goal attempts into waterslide adventures.
Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene was honored at halftime, and his gold jacket will dry by Thanksgiving. It was that kind of night.
What It Means: The Steelers turned last week's Eagles loss from a potential problem into "one of those games." Le'Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards in his return from suspension, and both Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton scored deep touchdowns to take some pressure off Antonio Brown (who added two of his own). The Steelers once again look like the best team in the AFC North, just as the schedule and reality will start catching up with the Ravens.
The Chiefs have wins over a Chargers team we knew wasn't good and a Jets team we are discovering may be nearly as bad. Losses to the Texans and Steelers put them in an early tiebreaker bind that could matter when they begin their annual quest for a wild-card berth.
The Chiefs always play better than their on-paper talent. But their on-paper talent is only good at a handful of positions right now.
What's Next: The Chiefs have a bye. The Steelers face three straight AFC East opponents, with the one that matters—New England—arriving in Week 7.
Unsung Hero: Greg Knapp, Quarterbacks Coach, Broncos
What He Did: Knapp got Trevor Siemian ready to lead the Broncos to their 3-0 start. When Siemian suffered a shoulder injury against the Buccaneers on Sunday, rookie Paxton Lynch entered the game and went 14-of-24 for 170 yards and one touchdown in the Broncos' 27-7 Week 4 victory.
What It Means: The best quarterback coaches in the world are often: a) a good offensive line; b) a good running game; c) great field position; and d) a lead. Give even an undrafted rookie those four things, and he is bound to be successful. The Broncos give their quarterbacks those things all the time.
But sometimes the best quarterback coach is a great quarterback coach. Knapp joined the Broncos in 2013 to coach Peyton Manning, which sounds like a job that involves getting the amount of sweetener and cream just right, but really involved fine-tuning the mechanisms on a vintage roadster. Knapp then had to keep Brock Osweiler fundamentally sound in the heat of a Super Bowl run.
This season, the Broncos handed Knapp the trio of Siemian, Lynch and Mark Sanchez and asked him to make chicken caesar salad. The poise and decisiveness that both Siemian and Lynch have demonstrated are testaments to Knapp's nuts-and-bolts approach. The quarterbacks may be cogs in the Broncos machine, but they are precision cogs.
As for Sanchez: Knapp is an Unsung Hero, not a miracle worker.
What's Next: Irresistible force vs. immovable object! Broncos defense vs. Falcons offense! Whoever suits up at quarterback for Denver will have to do more than just take care of the football.
This week's Fantasy Digest is a tribute to the Atlanta Falcons, who scored 93 points in six days, got a 300-yard afternoon from Julio Jones and, if history is any guide, are much more likely to help you win your fantasy league than help themselves to the NFC South crown. Then again, the way the Panthers are playing...
Winners: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Jacob Tamme. Think of the Falcons the way you thought of the Saints for the last three years. If there's a Falcons offensive player on your roster and he's healthy, get him in the lineup. That includes Tamme, who is a respectable 16-157-2 in four games this year after eight seasons as the tight end you only start because his quarterback is good and you're out of better ideas.
Loser: Mohamed Sanu. Sanu is the exception to the aforementioned Falcons rule. He went 8-72-0 during a three-game stretch when Ryan threw for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns; that's 6.3 percent of the passing offense, folks. Sanu, who may be inhibited by a shoulder injury, will eventually return to the end zone on a Wildcat or other trick play. It won't be worth waiting for.
Fluke: The Falcons defense scored two pick-sixes in the last two fourth quarters. Don't be fooled: The Falcons defense hasn't suddenly turned great. They have just capitalized on some sloppy late-game misfires.
Committee: Tevin Coleman leeched three red-zone touchdowns from Freeman last week, but Freeman scored from 13 yards out this week. Coleman also got some red-zone carries, so the pair may continue to split the role. It's hard to tell what the Falcons' red-zone philosophy looks like when Jones keeps catching 75-yard touchdowns.
Leech: Rookie tight end Austin Hooper siphoned off a score with a beautifully designed rollout touchdown catch for Atlanta.
Now let's take a break from the Falcons and instead acknowledge Tanner McEvoy, who sounds like he should have won a string of holes at the Ryder Cup but is actually a Seahawks undrafted rookie receiver. McEvoy caught a 42-yard touchdown against the Jets and will never be heard from again unless Tom Cable tries to make him a right tackle.
Defensive Player of the Week: Zach Brown of the Bills recorded 13 tackles, five assists, one sack, three tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. That included a crunching hit on Jacoby Brissett in the red zone that erased the Patriots' best first-half scoring opportunity.
Offensive Line of the Week: What good is it for Julio Jones to streak uncovered up the sideline if Matt Ryan has no time to throw? Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder helped the Falcons generate 1,013 yards of offense in the last six days.
Special Teamer of the Week: Several special teams stars earned mentions earlier in Digest, including Raiders punter Marquette King and Texans receiver/return man Will Fuller. But let's give Panthers punter Andy Lee a little love. He pinned the Falcons inside their own 2-yard line on three of his punts. It's not his fault the Falcons had three drives of 90-plus yards. That's right, Panthers: Last year you were 15-1; this year we're giving your punter pity awards!
Anemic Stat Line of the Week: DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans and Golden Tate of the Lions share this award. Tate was targeted four times and caught one pass for one yard. Hopkins was targeted six times but caught just one pass for four yards. You couldn't ask for more miserable days from a pair of more reliable receivers.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown of All Time: The Chiefs called timeout with eight seconds left at about 11:35 p.m. ET just so Travis Kelce could catch a touchdown pass to cut the Steelers lead to 43-14 and save the day for hundreds of thousands of Kelce fantasy owners. Jeremy Maclin called the actual timeout because the Chiefs lined up improperly. That Maclin is a team player. Even for imaginary teams.
Salvador Dali Clock-Management Meltdown of the Week: Brock Osweiler completed a pass short of the sticks on third down with 35 seconds left before halftime. Osweiler tried to line the Texans up to spike the ball, but then realized it was fourth down, so spiking the ball would not work.
The Texans called their final timeout. Then, Bill O'Brien somehow again failed to get his field-goal unit on the field, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty that took the Texans out of field-goal range. Luckily for the Texans, the Titans committed pass interference on a fourth-down pass, giving the Texans 13 free yards and a stopped clock. O'Brien then successfully sent his field-goal unit onto the field to the surprise and delight of millions.
The Colts-Jaguars game was also full of clock blunders. For example, the Jaguars purposely ran a play to the sideline while trying to milk a lead, and Chuck Pagano failed to send a returner deep to fair catch a late-game punt and save precious seconds. But the Colts and Jaguars probably thought they had to adjust for British "metric time" or something.
AFC South football is bad, folks.
Some random thoughts and observations from Week 4 that do not fit anywhere else:
- Bill Belichick smashed a tablet in disgust. He wasn't mad about getting shut out, and he wasn't destroying the #Tabletgate evidence we will hear about in three weeks. Rob Gronkowski just downloaded a bunch of bloatware onto the thing while playing Temple Run.
- Josh Norman got penalized for a bow-and-arrow celebration after an interception. C'mon, Josh. It's way too soon after the Battle of Agincourt.
- Terrelle Pryor performed a full LeBron James celebration. He did both the "simmer down" move and the "powder poof" routine, without the powder. The Browns will become a powerhouse as soon as Pryor becomes more like LeBron and less like Josh Cribbs.
- Lady Gaga blitzed the studio shows. Gaga was ubiquitous on CBS, wearing what appeared to be a wrestling tag team championship belt as pants and silver shoes that looked like the roller skates from Solarbabies with the wheels ripped off. It wasn't exactly "old-school NFL." Let's hope Mike Ditka was in a dark, quiet room wearing a blood-pressure monitor the whole time.
- The Bills won the pregame fight against the Patriots. The Ryan brothers will present each other with jeweled "Pregame Fight World Champion" rings next week, made from the leftover sequins from Lady Gaga's hot pants.
- DeSean Jackson wore custom "caution tape" cleats to try to inform the national conversation about police brutality. We're all for self-expression and healthy political dialogue at Digest. But Jackson may think he lives in a world where people with entrenched viewpoints on either side of a complex, controversial topic have a sudden epiphany after seeing a pair of sneakers.
- The Jaguars beat the Colts in London. There is a generation of British NFL fans who think the object of American football is to mismanage the clock, squander the most talent and allow the opponent as many comeback opportunities as possible.